(Un)conventional

No, constitutional conventions cannot stop free trade within Canada

I didn’t write about the “Free the Beer” decision, R. v. Comeau, 2016 NBPC 3, when it came out this spring. It took me a very long time to read, and others beat me to it ― notably Benjamin Oliphant, to whose excellent analysis over at Policy Options Perspectives there is not much to add. There is one specific point, however, which concerns a pet peeve of mine, and which I do not think others have addressed, which in my mind justifies my doing so here, however belatedly. The point in question is the government’s argument that a constitutional convention meant that section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 ought not to be invoked to strike down legislation erecting barriers to inter-provincial trade.

Justice LeBlanc rejected this argument, just as he rejected the rest of the Crown’s submissions on his way to concluding that New Brunswick’s rules prohibiting the importation of alcohol from other provinces are unconstitutional because contrary to section 121. But although there is much to like about his decision overall, I think there is a bit more to say about this particular point than he did.

The Crown claimed, on the basis of an expert report by a political scientist, that the ever-evolving Canadian federalism had developed in such a way that

governments, rather than the courts, have taken on the lion’s share of responsibility for the management of the federation. This is accomplished in part by the courts’ recognition of constitutional conventions and by a judicious deferral to governments to maintain the balance of powers. [153]

One of the conventions in question is, according to the Crown’s expert, the “disuse” [169] of section 121:

governments do not use section 121 to challenge the protectionist policies of other governments. As such perhaps a convention has formed whereby section 121 is effectively rendered inoperative. [171]

The expert, moreover, saw section 121 as a sort of spent transitional provision, arguing that it is rather a convention that prevents the imposition of customs duties at provincial borders.

Justice LeBlanc responded by pointing out, quite rightly, that

[o]nce the Supreme Court of Canada strictly interpreted section 121 [in Gold Seal Ltd. v. Alberta (Attorney-General), (1921), 62 S.C.R. 424, as applying only] to custom duties, there was in reality nowhere else for the section to go. It strictly prohibited custom duties and nothing else. Its disuse became merely a matter of practice or custom. It was not possible for the section to be interpreted in any way to come to the aid of any other governmental policy or strategy.

In other words, Supreme Court precedent limited the scope of section 121 ― though it certainly did not abolish it, so that it is fanciful to claim that a constitutional convention has been doing the work that this provision has always done ― and it is for that reason that it was no longer invoked. That is true, so far as it goes, and it is understandable that a judge would say no more in the course of an opinion that is already quite long enough. But, as I noted above, there is more to say here.

It is worth pointing out that the Crown’s reliance on constitutional conventions in the course of an argument is a pretty remarkable thing. On an orthodox view, constitutional conventions are not enforceable by courts. The Crown analogized section 121 to the provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 that enable the Governor General (acting on the advice of the federal government, of course) to disallow provincial legislation, which are rendered inoperative by a constitutional convention. Yet the Supreme Court expressed the view, in Reference re The Power of the Governor General in Council to Disallow Provincial Legislation and the Power of Reservation of a Lieutenant-Governor of a Province, [1938] S.C.R. 71, that these provisions were valid an in force as a matter of law. Similarly, in the Patriation Reference the Supreme Court said that conventions were not legal rules. So any attempt to invoke conventions as a sword rather than a shield (arguing that a claim should not be entertained because it asks the court to enforce conventions) faces an uphill battle, and indeed seems pretty desperate. It is telling, I think, that the Crown chose to make such an argument in Comeau.

Now, my own opinion is that the orthodox view that there is a sharp distinction between conventions and law is unfounded. Fabien Gélinas and I have suggested that, at least, conventions should inform the interpretation of the provisions of the written constitution. In a paper called “Towards a Jurisprudence of Constitutional Conventions”, (2011) 11:1 OUCLJ 29, I went further and argued that courts could actually treat conventions the way they treat common law constitutional rules, subject to justiciability concerns. While it is far from obvious that courts would endorse either of these approaches, and not very clear that the Crown in Comeau made much of an argument to show that they ought to, let’s assume that the court would have been bound to take a relevant convention into account in one way or another. Of course the question is whether there is such a convention here. Justice LeBlanc’s reasons suggest that the answer is “no.” But they ― understandably ― do not go into any detail on this point. A closer look shows that the Crown’s argument is completely off-base.

All constitutional conventions limit or eliminate he discretion that political actors seem to enjoy pursuant to other constitutional rules. For example, the law of the constitution leaves the sovereign with the choice to assent or not to bills that have passed the House of Commons and the Senate, but convention eliminates this discretion. The sovereign must assent. Geography does not figure among the criteria which the Supreme Court Act provides for the appointment of Supreme Court judges, other than those from Québec, but convention reduces the government’s discretion as to the advice it gives the Governor General by supplying additional geographic requirements.

What about the alleged convention here? The Crown’s expert points out that governments have refrained from suing each other on the basis of section 121. But even if that forbearance could be said to have acquired the status of a conventional rule, this convention could apply to governments ― the political actors whose behaviour contributed to the alleged rule’s emergence ― and only to governments. Not to citizens. To repeat, conventions stipulate how political actors exercise discretion. They do not dictate the behaviour of citizens. So while a convention may in effect nullify constitutional provisions that only empowers a political actor, such as those dealing with the disallowance power, they cannot “render[] inoperative” provisions that confer rights on citizens.

The Crown’s argument assumes, without even attempting to demonstrate, that section 121 is a provision that only concerns governments. But the assumption is unwarranted, and indeed galling. Constitutional provisions limiting the power of governments, such as section 121, exist in order to preserve the liberty of the citizens. In Attorney General of Nova Scotia v. Attorney General of Canada, [1951] S.C.R. 31, Chief Justice Rinfret wrote that even if Parliament and the legislatures agree to modify the constitutional division of powers by resorting to delegation, they cannot do so, because

[t]he constitution of Canada does not belong either to Parliament, or to the Legislatures; it belongs to the country and it is there that the citizens of the country will find the protection of the rights to which they are entitled. (34)

As the Chief Justice pointed out,

[i]t is part of that protection that Parliament can legislate only on the subject matters referred to it by section 91 and that each Province can legislate exclusively on the subject matters referred to it by section 92. (34)

But another part of that protection, of course, is that when the constitution removes a legislative power from both Parliament and the provinces, neither can arrogate such a power to itself, even with the connivance of the other. This is true of the power of constitutional amendment, for instance, and of the violation of Charter rights. And it is equally true of section 121. Were a court to accept to Crown’s (un)conventional argument to the contrary, it would transform the Canadian constitution from protection of the citizens’ freedom into a plaything for governments intent on limiting that freedom.

 

(Still) a Convention?

At his History News blog, Christopher Moore is arguing that “responsible government is not a ‘convention’.” In his view, the “basis of responsible government in Canada” is right there in the constitutional text ― specifically, in the provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 that deal with money votes. Dale Smith replies in a post at his own blog, Routine Proceedings, pointing out that these provisions make “no mention of a PM, or cabinet,” reflecting the fact that these are indeed the creatures of “the unwritten conventions that we inherited from the UK.” Mr. Smith has the better of this particular debate ― but his insistence that responsible government is purely conventional overlooks sources of constitutional law other than the text.

Mr. Moore claims that “Section 54 of the Constitution Act, [1867] … sets out in plain language that only the cabinet can make and propose the raising and spending of money,” while “53 … bluntly states that only the House of Commons can give approval to the cabinet’s proposals for getting and spending.” He argues that “[s]ince getting and spending money covers everything a government does, these two sections make the government responsible to the Commons.” This is quite wrong.

First, the language of section 54 is anything but plain since, as Mr. Smith points out, it does not even mention the cabinet, and speaks of the Governor General instead. It convention that requires the Governor General to act on the cabinet’s advice. The constitutional text does not say that. Second, section 53 doesn’t say that “only the House of Commons can give approval” to money bills. It says that such bills must “originate in the House of Commons,” but they must, as all other bills, be approved by the Senate too. It is again convention that dictates that the Senate will not stand in the way of a money bill approved by the Commons. And third, one cannot simply equate the rules dealing with the passage of money bills with those of responsible government. For one thing, not only money bills are matters of confidence on which a cabinet will stand or fall ― so is the Speech from the Throne, and so can be other bills, if the government so chooses. And for another, there is no law of nature that says that money bills must be matters of confidence at all. In the United Kingdom, section 2 of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 means that they are not ― it takes a separate vote on a motion in prescribed terms for the House of Commons to express its lack of confidence in the government. It is, yet again, convention that (still) singles out votes on money bills as having a special constitutional importance in Canada. In short, while the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 was written with the conventions of responsible government in mind, it neither comes close to codifying them nor can otherwise be understood as “the basis of responsible government in Canada.”

That said, it is important to note, as Mr. Smith does not, that in Canada constitutional text is not all there is to constitutional law, and that it is possible ― and in my view likely ― that the rules of responsible government belong to that part of constitutional law which is not reflected in the text itself, and thus are not only conventional. In Ontario (Attorney General) v. OPSEU, [1987] 2 S.C.R. 2, Justice Beetz suggested that

[i]t may very well be that the principle of responsible government could, to the extent that it depends on … important royal powers [which may be entrenched by the references to the ‘offices’ of the Governor General and the Lieutenant-Governor], be entrenched to a substantial extent. (46)

More recently, and more importantly, in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704,  the Supreme Court took the view that the (legal) constitution encompassed, among other things, an “architecture,” consisting of “[t]he assumptions that underlie the text and the manner in which the constitutional provisions are intended to interact with one another.” [26] An interference with that architecture, the Court opined, amounted to a constitutional amendment. Now, the conventions of responsible government are surely among “the assumptions that underlie the text” of the Constitution Act, 1867, which concern “the manner in which the constitutional provisions are intended to interact with one another.” The text says nothing about the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, votes of confidence, or the Senate’s deference on money bills. But it would not have been enacted in its existing form had the existence of these institutions and rules not been assumed and universally accepted.

This leads me to the conclusion that, although the rules of responsible government are of clearly conventional origin, and the constitutional only leaves room for them to operate (in addition to referring to them, obliquely, in the preamble), they are now entrenched and legal rules. This is not to say that they are, or ought to be, justiciable. Perhaps courts would hold to the orthodoxy, expressed in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753, that “the remedy for a breach of a convention does not lie with the courts,” (882) though I am not certain that they would. Yet just as a modification to the assumptions regarding the respective roles of the House of Commons and Senate requires, according to the Reference re Senate Reform, a constitutional amendment with provincial consent because it modifies the constitutional architecture (a view which the Supreme Court said “is supported by the language” [64] of the Constitution’s amending formula), so I believe would a attempt to change the rules of responsible government, say by limiting the scope of what counts as a vote of non-confidence. This would, in my view, be the case quite apart from any interference with the vice-regal office, though this may play the same sort of supporting role that the constitutional text played in Reference re Senate Reform.

I’d like to make one additional observation, regarding Mr. Smith’s claim that while

Responsible Government can function without [political] parties … in a theoretical world with vampires and unicorns, … it will never happen in real life. … The practice of parties developed for a reason. Maintaining confidence without them is a fool’s errand.

The conventions of responsible government gelled in the United Kingdom in the 1830s. There already were political parties by then, and there had been for quite some time. However, these parties were looser and much less disciplined than those to which we are used now. And they were indeed rather less good at maintaining confidence in the cabinet. The strong, disciplined, and effective parties that we know now emerged gradually, in response not only to the need for maintaining confidence but also to the broadening of the franchise which had only begun in 1832, and continued over the following decades. So while we almost certainly need political parties of some sort in order to maintain an effective system of responsible government, these parties need not look and operate the way they do today.

De la formation du gouvernement

Juste avant les élections fédérales en Octobre, j’avais participé (en compagnie de Hoi Kong) à une mini-conférence à l’Université de Montréal, intitulée « Gouvernements minoritaires et/ou de coalition : Legality and/or Legitimacy ». La chose m’avait échappé à l’époque, mais ma présentation est disponible en ligne. Évidemment, elle ne s’est pas avérée très pertinente vu le résultat du vote du 19 octobre, mais elle pourrait l’être dans quelques années, d’autant plus si le système électoral est modifié entre temps. La voici.

Let’s Hear It

I’ve mentioned Aniz Alani’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Prime Minister’s apparent and admitted policy of not making any Senate appointments before. The federal government moved to strike Mr. Alani’s application for judicial review, arguing that it had no chance of success, and also that the Federal Court had no jurisdiction to hear it. Yesterday, that Court’s Justice Harrington rejected the motion to strike, thus allowing the application to proceed to a hearing on the merits. It is important to keep in mind that this is not a decision on the substance of any of the multiple issues Mr. Alani’s application raises. Indeed, Justice Harrington is very careful to make it clear, throughout his reasons, that these issues are very much open. Still, these reasons might give us some indications of what the eventual merits ruling could look like.

The issues presented by this case can be sorted in four categories. Logically the first is the question of whether the constitutionality of senatorial non-appointments is justiciable at all. Then there is the procedural question of whether Mr. Alani’s application to the Federal Court is the right way to raise it. Justice Harrington mostly considers a variety of sub-questions that can be grouped under these two headings, dealing with procedure first and with justiciability second.

What I have in the preceding paragraph called the procedural question is actually mostly one of jurisdiction. Justice Harrington briefly considers the matter of Mr. Alani’s standing, but does not really go beyond “grant[ing] him standing on a public interest basis to oppose the motion to have his application struck.” [11] He also comments on the question of whether there is a “decision” not to appoint Senators which the Federal Court could review. If there is no decision, Justice Harrington suggests when considering some amendments Mr. Alani proposed making to his application, then the application becomes a pure “reference” on a point of law, which the Federal Courts Act does not authorize an individual to pursue. The Federal Court would, in other words, be without jurisdiction to entertain a challenge not focused on a “decision.” For the purposes of a motion to strike, Justice Harrington is prepared to assume that a “decision” has been made, but he seems somewhat skeptical. This is likely to be a problem for Mr. Alani going forward, as I had already suggested here.

The other jurisdictional question Justice Harrington addresses is also one I had pointed at. Even assuming that the Prime Minister has made a “decision,” within the meaning of the Federal Court Act, not to advise the Governor General to appoint Senators, does this decision fall within the scope of the Federal Court’s review powers? More precisely, the government contended that decisions regarding advice do not fall within the scope of Crown prerogative, and are thus nonrenewable. Justice Harrington does not decide this point, but rather says that there is enough doubt about it to leave it open to a hearing on the merits. (It is worth noting, though, that he does not once mention the concept of “constitutional architecture,” which in my view is Mr. Alani’s best hope of bringing the issue of the Prime Minister’s advice within the legal, as opposed to the purely conventional, realm.)

As for the justiciability issues involved in Mr. Alani’s challenge, they all have to do with the role of constitutional conventions in the appointment of Senators. All agree that there is a convention pursuant to which Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the Prime Minister’s advice. The government has argued that, as conventions are not legal rules or legally enforceable, the whole matter non-justiciable. Justice Harrington suggests that this is not so. He notes that the government has not argued that a convention governs “the timing of the Prime Minister’s recommendations” to the Governor General, and adds that

[c]ertainly, at some stage, senators have to be appointed. If there were to be no quorum, (the quorum being fifteen), Parliament could not function as it is composed of both the House of Commons and the Senate. [17]

Justice Harrington goes on to say that courts can determine whether a convention exists, and that if the government wants to rely on one, it will not only have to establish its existence, but possibly also show that any convention it relies on does not “flaunt[]” the requirements of the Constitution Act, 1867, “that Senate vacancies be filled” “promptly” [18] ― though the existence of such a requirement is also left to be established (presumably by Mr. Alani) at the merits stage of the application. Finally, Justice Harrington suggests that, contrary to the government’s contention, the court could make a declaration even if doing so has the effect of making the government follow a convention.

It is good, I think, that Mr. Alani’s challenge will be considered on the merits. It underlying premise, that the timely appointment of Senators to fill vacancies is a constitutional requirement pursuant to s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, seems to me obviously correct, and since the Prime Minister, as well as one of the men hoping to replace him, are committed (the latter perhaps even more strongly than the former) to disregarding the constitution, it would be good if the courts could call them to order. That said, it is still not clear that the Federal Court is actually authorized to do that. Specifically, it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minster’s course of action can be regarded as a reviewable decision and, if so, whether it is the sort of decision the Federal Court has jurisdiction to review. Courts, unlike Prime Ministers, cannot simply ignore pesky legal rules that might stop them from doing what they think is best.

All or Nothing

I want to come back, briefly, to the crazy idea I put forward last weekend, about the Governor General starting to appoint Senators without waiting for Prime Ministerial advice if it becomes clear that such advice is not and will not be forthcoming. Actually, maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea because, as Aniz Alani pointed out to me, it was already raised, although not advocated, by experts who testified at a Senate committee hearing regarding a bill that had been proposed ― during Stephen Harper’s previous fit of non-appointment pique ― to force the Prime Minister to appoint a Senator within six months of a vacancy arising.

My post provoked an unusual (for me) number of responses on Twitter (and elsewhere). Most of them were to the effect that my idea was not a good one, because if the Governor General thinks that the Prime Minister is acting unconstitutionally, he should simply dismiss him and appoint a different one, who will give him constitutional advice. (I am too lazy to track them down and link to them now, so you’ll have to trust me on this being the consensus, or at least the majority, view.)

My initial reaction, I confess, was surprise. I had raised this possibility in my post, but thought dismissing a Prime Minister (and his cabinet) would be a “dramatic,” an “extreme” solution to a problem which, although serious, is nothing like, say, an attempt by a ministry to cling to office despite losing Parliament’s confidence. Besides, I wonder about the practicability of this solution. If the dismissed ministry commanded a Parliamentary majority, there would likely be no majority ready to support whatever alternative the Governor General could ask to form a cabinet. The only way out would be a dissolution, following which a dismissed ministry could be re-elected (quite possibly on the strength of a populist appeal against the interference of an unelected Governor General in defence of an unelected Senate!), and we would be back to square one.

On further reflection, however, I also see the logic behind my (friendly) critics’ position. The idea is, I think, that it is so important that the Governor General always act on ministerial advice that it would be wrong for him or her to start acting autonomously even if that advice (or lack thereof) is arguably unconstitutional. The solution to the problem of unconstitutional advice is not to ignore it, but to get a different adviser. It is a powerful argument. The conventions of responsible government, which require the Governor General to follow ministerial advice, are arguably the most important rules in our constitution. To weaken them might mean going back 300 years in our constitutional development.

And as a descriptive matter, this “constitutional position” is almost certainly the generally accepted one in Canada. It explains, for instance, Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s actions during the 2008-09 prorogation crisis, when she accepted the Prime Minister’s advice to prorogue Parliament, even though it was transparently intended to stave off (successfully as it turned out) a Parliamentary vote that would have confirmed that the government had lost the confidence of the House of Commons and triggered its resignation.

Still, there is a paradox here, which makes me reluctant to accept that this constitutional position, albeit dominant, is also a normatively desirable one. At the risk of repeating myself, dismissing a ministry which enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons is a radical, spectacular step for a Governor General to take, and no viceroy in his or her right mind will embark on it without hesitation. It is also, obviously a dramatic departure from the principles of responsible government ― a bigger one, it seems to me, than ignoring that ministry’s advice on one specific point. That’s why I’m finding it strange that, in the face of unconstitutional advice a Governor General is entitled to go for the “nuclear option” of dismissal but not for a carefully circumscribed show of defiance. But this contradiction is, admittedly, more apparent than real. In reality, a Governor General will not dismiss a Ministry, except I suppose in the absolutely clearest of cases. For any constitutional transgression that does not obviously warrant dismissal, the lack of any alternative is simply the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail free card for a rogue Prime Minister, which is exactly what happened during the prorogation crisis.

So although I understand why this is the case, I am not at all sure that a rule that vice-regal interventions against a Prime Minister or cabinet who act unconstitutionally must be all-or-nothing propositions is a good thing. It seems, however, to be the generally accepted understanding of the conventions of responsible government in Canada, and I wanted to highlight the fact that my critics were right about that.

Please Advise

The Prime Minister is apparently refusing to have any new Senators appointed, until, well, who knows (though one may suspect that it is until the next election. The leader of the official opposition has already declared that he would never appoint any Senators ever. And, as I noted in my first post on this subject, a Vancouver lawyer, Aniz Alani, has asked the Federal Court of Canada to put an end to the Prime Minister’s subversion of section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that “[w]hen a Vacancy happens in the Senate … the Governor General shall by Summons to a fit and qualified Person fill the Vacancy.” Mr. Alani’s suit raises a number of interesting questions. In this post, I address some of them.

Although his notice of application names both the Prime Minister and the Governor General as respondents, Mr. Alani’s challenge is framed as an application for judicial review of the Prime Minister’s “decision … not to advise the Governor General to summon fit and qualified persons to … the Senate.” He seeks declarations to the effect that the Prime Minister must so advise the Governor General, and that his failure to do so is an unconstitutional violation both of the relevant provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 and of underlying constitutional principles.

Before getting to the substantive issues this raises, a few words about preliminary matters. An issue that I will only flag, but not address, is that it can be difficult to show that a course of not doing something amounts to a decision not to do it that is amenable to judicial review. Assuming that Mr. Alani can clear that hurdle, he may also need to convince the court to grant him public interest standing, to pursue his challenge, since the non-appointment of Senators does not injure or affect him personally any more than any other citizen. The factors a court will consider in deciding whether to grant public interest standing are the existence of a serious justiciable issue, on which more below, though if the federal courts follow the Québec Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Canada (Procureur général) c. Barreau du Québec, 2014 QCCA 2234, they will not impose a high threshold here at the standing stage; the seriousness of the applicant’s interest; and the existence of alternative ways of getting the matter before the courts, which should not be an issue here.

Once these matters are out of the way, the biggest substantive issue with Mr. Alani’s application is the way in which it involves constitutional conventions. This arguably goes at once to the jurisdiction of the Federal Court under section 18.1 and to the justiciability of his claims under the general principles courts apply in cases where their power to decide a question is uncertain. To repeat, Mr. Alani’s application aims squarely at the behaviour of the Prime Minister, and not that of the Governor General. Yet the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 gives the power and the duty ― the word “shall” in section 32 is dispositive in this regard ― to appoint Senators to the Governor General. Pursuant to a constitutional convention, this power is exercised on the Prime Minister’s advice. But, on the orthodox view, that convention itself is not a legal rule, and there is no legal link between the Prime Minister and the appointment of Senators.

Thus, Mr. Alani may have some difficulty showing that his application raises at least one of the “grounds of review” which give the Federal Court jurisdiction under subsection 18.1(4) of the Federal Courts Act. At least on the orthodox view of a rigid separation between law and convention, the Prime Minister has not “refused to exercise [his] jurisdiction,” “failed to observe a … procedure that it was required by law to observe,” or “acted in any other way that was contrary to law.” The law, on this view has nothing to say about the Prime Minister’s behaviour with respect to the appointment of Senators. For the same reason, the government could argue that the a Prime Minister’s decision to advise or not to advise the Governor General is a purely political one, and therefore lacks a “sufficient legal component” to be justiciable.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, complicates things, however. The Court introduced a notion of “constitutional architecture,” which seems to encompass the relationships between the various institutions of government, such as that between the Senate and the House of Commons. The Court took the position that making the Senate, in effect, elected would alter the constitutional architecture by making it the equal of, rather than the complement to, the House of Commons. Until then, we thought that the reason the Senate (normally) yielded to the House of Commons was a constitutional convention, rather than a legal constitutional norm.

Mr. Alani could invoke this notion of constitutional architecture, which is part of the legal and not only the conventional constitution, to argue that the Prime Minister’s actions ― or rather his inaction ― infringes on the “constitutional architecture” which makes him responsible for ensuring, by giving timely advice as to the identity of “fit and qualified persons,” that the Governor General can discharge his duty under s. 32 of summoning them to the Senate “when a vacancy arises.” Whether the courts would accept this argument remains to be seen. It seems at least plausible to me, but the notion of architecture is too new and too uncertain to make any predictions about the ways in which it might be applied in the future.

But even if Mr. Alani can overcome the difficulty of showing that the Prime Minister’s behaviour actually contravenes a legal rule, he will further need to convince the courts that the remedies he is seeking are appropriate. (Although I cannot develop the argument for this proposition here, I think that the courts’ decisions on justiciability are often dependent on their views of their remedial powers, and not only on the nature of the rules at issue in a case.) Mr. Alani is asking the court to declare that “the Prime Minister … must advise the Governor General to summon a qualified Person to the Senate within a reasonable time after a Vacancy” arises, and that he is acting unconstitutionally by failing to do so. But such a declaration would not be very helpful, because it would not specify what a reasonable time is. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible for a court to be any more specific, given the politically sensitive nature of any Senate appointment, not to mention the absence of any clear time limit in the constitutional text.

Now the Supreme Court has occasionally issued fairly vague declarations or statements of the law, often in the context of references (such as the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217). The one “normal” case where the Court did that, which immediately comes to mind, however, is Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 44, where the Court declared that the Canadian government had acted unconstitutionally, and said, in effect, that it ought to do something about that. But the government’s ― this Prime Minister’s government’s ― response to that decision was arguably perfunctory, and the same might happen in this case. A declaration that the Prime Minister is acting unconstitutionally may well be met with further inaction, and might thus only serve to undermine the courts’ authority. I am not sure that the courts will, or indeed that they should, risk such an outcome.

The constitutional rule set out in section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, seems clear enough. But the role of constitutional conventions and concerns about the remedial powers of the courts, not to mention administrative law and standing issues, might still prevent it from being judicially enforceable. This seems problematic from the perspective of the Rule of Law ― but then again, a rule of this sort never intended to be judicially enforced. A Prime Minister’s self-interest in making patronage appointments can normally be counted on to ensure that appointments to the Senate will be relatively expeditious. Unfortunately, when the incentives on which a constitutional scheme implicitly relies break down, the constitution itself becomes dysfunctional ― indeed, we may well speak of a constitutional crisis, albeit not yet an acute one ― and it’s not obvious what can be done about that, or by whom.

Constitutional Defiance

In news which perhaps did not receive the attention it deserved, the federal leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, announced that, if he becomes Prime Minister following the next federal election, he would imitate the current Prime Minister and refuse to appoint any Senators. La Presse quotes him as saying that

[t]he Senate is like a grape that you leave out to dry on the vine. It’s not good any more after that. We’ll leave it out to dry, it will be over, and it won’t be there anymore. [Translation mine]

Mr. Mulcair is, supposedly, “determined to work with all of the provinces on the Senate’s abolition,” and firmly set on never appointing Senators ever. As for Stephen Harper, he has not, to my knowledge, foreclosed the possibility of doing so if he wins the next election, but is also apparently uninterested in filling out the current 16 vacancies in the Senate until then. A Vancouver lawyer, Aniz Alani, has launched a lawsuit, apparently claiming that failure to appoint Senators is an infringement of section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that “[w]hen a Vacancy happens in the Senate … the Governor General shall by Summons to a fit and qualified Person fill the Vacancy.”

The legal merits of this claim, Mr. Alani’s standing to bring it and, most of all, its justiciability all make for very interesting questions, and I might yet return to them. For now though, perhaps as a result of consuming too much alcohol as part of New Year’s celebrations, I want to suggest a different, crazier, remedy. Arguably, at some point, if the Prime Minister fails to advise the Governor General to summon new Senators, the Governor General should just do it himself, without waiting for advice that he knows will not come.

Regardless of the availability of legal remedies for its breach, section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867 clearly imposes a responsibility on the Governor General, since it uses the imperative “shall” (instead, for example, of the permissive “may”). Constitutional conventions dictate that the Governor General discharges this responsibility, and similar ones (for example for appointing judges) only pursuant to the ministerial advice. As the Supreme Court recently explained in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 704,

constitutional convention requires the Governor General to follow the recommendations of the Prime Minister of Canada when filling Senate vacancies. [50]

Conversely, so long as he has received no recommendation from the Prime Minister, the Governor General may not fill such vacancies. Yet that prohibition arguably presupposes that the Prime Minister will in fact act to advise the Governor General to appoint some “fit and qualified person” to fill the vacant Senate seat. What if the Prime Minister has made it clear that he will not do so?

In the Senate Reform Reference, the Supreme Court recognized that the Senate, disliked though it is by many Canadians, has a number of important functions. It is “a complementary legislative body of ‘sober second thought'” [56], in addition to providing representation for Canadian regions and “various groups that were under-represented in the House of Commons,” notably “ethnic, gender, religious, linguistic, and Aboriginal groups” [16]. It stands to reason that the shorter the Senate is of its full complement, the less effectively it can fulfill these roles.

Still in the Senate Reform Reference, the Court took the position that a course of action that would “weaken the Senate’s role of sober second thought” [60] would amount to a constitutional amendment, even though it did not modify the constitutional text. Arguably, the course of action at issue there, the enactment of (federal and, possibly, provincial) legislation that would set up purportedly “consultative” elections of Senators, would have had a clearer effect than a gradual reduction in the number of Senators. Then again, that effect too would only have been achieved gradually, as elected members would slowly have replaced appointed ones.

In any case, even if the difference might matter from a strictly legal perspective, I do not think that it does from a political one, which is what interests me here. There can be political remedies, as well as ― and even instead of ― legal ones when the government acts in violation of the constitution. Most obviously, of course, the government can be voted out of office. But that’s not the only possibility. As the Supreme Court pointed out in the Patriation Reference, Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 753, if a government refuses to resign after losing a general election, “the Governor General … would be justified in dismissing the ministry and in calling on the opposition to form the government.” (882) This is an extreme case, because the ministry’s behaviour would be “a fundamental breach of convention, one so serious indeed that it could be regarded as tantamount to a coup d’état.” (882) Failure to appoint Senators is surely a less serious matter. (Though consider what happens when the Senate dwindles below its quorum, and no statutes can pass Parliament at all ― something that may conceivably happen under Mr. Mulcair’s approach, if he is unable to goad the provinces into agreeing on abolition before then.)

Short of such a dramatic step, I would like to suggest that, faced with a cabinet and a Prime Minister determined on acting in clear, if perhaps not legally sanctionable, defiance of the constitution, the Governor General may be wise to break the convention that requires him to appoint Senators only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Yes, breaking the convention is also acting in defiance of the constitution, even though this step may not be amenable to a legal remedy. But, unlike the temper tantrum of a Prime Minister who refuses to replenish the Senate simply because he does not like the way this institution operates under the existing constitution or because he does not want to attract attention his record of questionable appointments, it is a constitutional violation intended, and arguably necessary, to prevent another such violation.

Indeed, substantively, it might be a very positive step for the Senate and for Canada. The Governor General would be free from the partisan incentives that have too often prevented Prime Ministers from appointing Senators capable of providing genuine “sober second thought,” and thus might help the Senate fulfill its role as a complementary legislative chamber. Senators appointed not by an elected official but by a person who is himself an appointee would not have the problematic legitimacy to oppose the democratic will of the House of Commons, yet they would be more likely to have the capacity for independent thought which partisan hacks too often lack. They would offer a counterargument, but not a counterweight, to the House of Commons, which I think was exactly what the Senate was originally meant to do.

To be sure, even if it were to bring about a desirable result, a vice-regal assertion of independent power would be troubling and problematic. If I’m not the only one to think that this idea even deserves some thought, that would be strong evidence of something being rotten in the state of our democracy. But I for one do smell rot, when I hear the Prime Minister and the man who would be Prime Minister set out on a course of disregarding both our Parliamentary institutions and our constitution itself not only apparently without questioning the constitutional propriety of such a course, but indeed suggesting that it is the right thing to do.

UPDATE: Philippe Lagassé has pointed out to me that, pursuant to section 4 of the Federal Documents Regulation, a Senator’s commission must be signed by the Registrar ― who also happens to be a cabinet minister (specifically, Industry Minister, as prof. Lagassé explains). So presumably a defiant Governor General couldn’t just act on his own ― the Registrar would not go along. The constitutionality of this regulation, insofar as it interferes with the Governor General’s execution of the powers of his office might be questionable, but there it is. And, of course, in reality, a Prime Minister can always give the Queen a call and have her fire a defiant viceroy. In short, as Paul Wells tweeted, “the Governor General won’t help you.” And yet…